The collapse was over. After overcoming a stretch where they won just 3 of 14 games, the Rays had won seven in a row against the Orioles and Yankees to enter their final series of the year up a game over the Indians for first in the AL Wild Card race. Like every other team, they had their slump, and they certainly would have preferred it happening at a less critical time. However, they weren’t the chicken-eating 2011 Red Sox or a young team that had never been this far. They were the team that beat the odds consistently. Year after year with their low payroll and unimpressive free agent signings, people all over baseball counted them out. And every season, there would always be some stretch that would seem to vindicate their opponents and convince everyone that this would be the year that their bubble finally burst. But every time, they came through when it mattered most. They may have been the underdog, but they didn’t feel like it anymore. After years of success, they could finally be confident. The only thing standing in their way was three games with the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that had began the season with so much glamour yet had fallen apart once the season began. Yet after two games in Toronto, the Blue Jays have won twice and the Rays have gone from one game ahead in the Wild Card to tied with the Rangers for second place, one loss away from a debilitating end to a season that had seemed so promising just a couple days ago.
Joe Maddon trusts his guys until the very end. Jeremy Hellickson‘s disappointing season never stopped, yet Maddon started him on Friday night in a crucial game. Rays fans had to hope that Hellickson would come through in the clutch, but no one was shocked when he faltered once again. It’s the type of cockiness that prompted Maddon to start Hellickson that has helped him lead the Rays this far. But it’s that same cockiness that is bringing the Rays down right now. There are no overt reasons for concern, no disorder in the clubhouse and no young players telling reporters how nervous they are. It’s instead the quiet confidence, the sense of entitlement after how far they have come, that let the Rays lose their guard for just a moment and could cost them their season if they don’t recover today. Just for two games, the Rays started drinking the kool aid and thinking about all they had accomplished instead of everything they have still to do. Can they refocus themselves before it’s too late?